Is it Time to Break your Habit?


Habits have been in vogue lately, spawning self-help bestsellers and pop Psych paeans.

Mostly, this literature trumpets the awesome power of habit and how habit can harnessed for good. And I’m definitely a believer!  After all, daily practice is the habit to which I owe my career.

 But there’s a dark side to habit, in that a bad habit, once it’s sunk in, can be particularly difficult to eradicate.

This plays out time and time again in my teaching, especially with students who were originally self-taught. Don’t get me wrong- I’m overjoyed that people are out there teaching themselves recorder. But I’m even more delighted when I get to help a student before bad habits have sunk in.

But let’s say I’m too late. Say a new student comes to me with an entrenched maladaptive thumb technique, a way of breathing that sets her up for tension, fingerings that are not in tune… the possibilities are endless!

In this case, the student and I have a decision to make.  Do we put forth the very considerable effort necessary to replace a bad habit with a good one?  Or do we let the habit slide?

The decision-making process is different in each case, but the questions we consider are similar:

How entrenched is the habit?

Fingering the E incorrectly for 30 years is different from fingering the E incorrectly for five months.  And in general, adults tend to have a more difficult time replacing bad habits than children do.  I’ll always push a child to change, and almost always push a near beginner. 

How damaging is the habit?

Here you need to consider the magnitude of both physical and musical damage. Holding the recorder with too much tension may cause physical damage in the long run, and that absolutely needs to be addressed. And playing the alto’s low B-flat without the pinky makes for tuning infelicity audible to the casual listener. In contrast, leaving the index finger off the high A is usually audible only to recorder teachers.

 What are the student’s goals?

It goes without saying that bad habits in a pre-professional player must be addressed.  But what about the adult amateur?  Here’s where the student and I really need to think about his goals.  Does the student want to be the best recorder player he can be?  Or is moment-to-moment enjoyment the student’s primary focus?

 What is the student’s tolerance for struggle?

Every student has a different tolerance for being uncomfortable- though this tolerance can be grown.  Some students enjoy the challenge of replacing a bad habit; others grit their teeth and bear it; a few find the process debilitating.

Does the student want to change the habit?

Here’s where the rubber hits the road.  As a teacher, I can encourage and guide and help to provide motivation for change, but at the end of the day, the student needs to be on board. Sometimes a student will say they are on board, but they really aren’t, or some part of them isn’t- and then we need to grapple with that.

How does this decision-making play out in real time? Let’s walk through a couple of scenarios:

1)   Student R came to me in her late 50s with three decades of amateur playing under her belt, including one brief stint of lessons from a non-professional player many years in the past.  Her breathing technique was underdeveloped and included a deeply entrenched habit of thoracic activation, resulting in poor support, short phrase lengths, and a wobbly tone. R was organized and enjoyed challenge and the process of improvement. She loved the bass recorder in particular, and wanted to improve her skills there.  Changing R’s breathing habits was an easy sell, especially when I explained how it would help her on the bass.  We took an organized approach, starting small using specific exercises to replace thoracic breathing with diaphragmatic breathing, and within a couple of years R’s tone was much better supported and she was able to play significantly longer phrases, resulting in a much more enjoyable musical experience for her and her ensemble.

2) Student B came to me in her mid 80s with many decades of amateur playing under her belt. She’d been taking lessons from another professional teacher until that teacher retired, but had retained a maladaptive thumb technique (if a student has had high-quality instruction but still hasn’t broken a bad habit, it’s a good though not infallible indicator that the student doesn’t want to make the change). Student B enjoyed coming to lessons and particularly enjoyed playing duets, but she confessed she didn’t practice much outside of her lesson time, and what’s more, she didn’t really want to.  Her primary goal was to enjoy making music.  We decided to leave B’s thumb technique alone and concentrate on exploring level-appropriate duet repertoire.

Do my students replace their bad habits?  In most, though not all, cases, the answer is yes.  Adults who take lessons are a driven, curious, and achieving bunch. They’ve already shown they are interested in becoming better players, and they tend to be up for a challenge. Replacing bad habits is seldom easy, but it’s almost always rewarding, and watching students take on the task is unfailingly inspiring.


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© 2016 Anne Timberlake